Saturday, April 27, 2013

Celebrating Slow Art Day at SFMOMA: Matisse's Femme au Chapeau

One day each year – April 27 in 2013 – people all over the world visit local museums and galleries to look at art slowly. Participants look at five works of art for 10 minutes each and then meet together over lunch to talk about their experience. That’s it. Simple by design, the goal is to focus on the art and the art of seeing.

I used this opportunity to revisit one of my favorite pieces of art, the one I always make a point of viewing on each and every visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 

Here in San Francisco,  we are lucky enough to have a very nice (if small) collection of Matisse's works at the SF MOMA. I remember when I first saw this piece at the old  museum on Van Ness. When you got off the elevator on the top floor, it was facing you as you entered the museum. Even now, although not as well placed as it was in the older museum, it still has the power to beguile and intrigue the viewer.

In "Femme au Chapeau,"  Matisse took the familiar form of the salon portrait and turned it on its head. He discards perspective, shadows, and three-dimensional space, in fact, any attempt at realistic portraiture. The subject is Matisse’s wife, Ameile Matisse. She is seated in a chair with her back turned somewhat toward the viewer. Her head is placed exactly in the center of the canvas, topped by a huge Edwardian hat. Her gloved hand rests on the arm of a chair and she carries a fan in her other hand. She looks over her shoulder at us, her small head tilted, with a look that is vulnerable, determined and melancholy.

But what a face, what a hand, what a chair – all bursting with vibrant, indeed garish color! Her red hair, red ear and red neck arise from the collar of her dress which is painted with irregular patches of green with smaller squiggles of yellow, red and orange along the border. Her right check is defined by a semicircle of orange with an insert of yellow; her left cheek is green and blue.

One side of her face is defined by a smear of pink and the same color defines the line of her chin. Her brown almond shaped eyes look out from a face that is painted green (nose), red and orange (mouth), and molded in lighter pink and pale green along the chin line. Her huge blue hat, crowned by unidentifiable objects, is posed against a background of varied complimentary and secondary colors with a yellow patch behind her hat on the left and a green and pink patch in the background on the right.

The objects resting on top of the hat are painted in pairs of complimentary colors red, yellow, blue, green and orange; Matisse will go on to paint other hats but this one takes over the top of the painting like some huge tropical flower. The paint is thinly and roughly applied with more irregular areas of pink and red defining the right and left frames of the picture plane. To maximize the intensity of his colors—and achieve the light he was looking for—the whole picture is painted with pairs of complementary colors – red against blue, yellow against green, yellow against blue with some secondary colors in the armchair and along portions of her gloved hand.

Madame Matisse looks at us from beyond a barrier of color, her face overshadowed by the huge hat, which takes up the upper third of the picture frame. Her mask-like face hides more than it reveals, yet still shows a melancholy sadness that comes across through the strong colors. The colors are not blended and discordant, seemingly dashed upon the canvas with strong and fluid brush strokes. She looks at us but from a psychological distance; the bright colors both attract and then repel with their acid harmonies. The painting still radiates a ferocious energy that is at odds with the vulnerable melancholy on her face, the down turned drop of her mouth and the guarded expression in her eyes.

Impressionist paintings seem to glow with an internal light and generally reflect a sunny, peaceful world. The light from "Femme au Chapeau" is neither sunny nor peaceful but emanates from the flattened surface. The flat areas of color around the red-green, orange-blue axis invite us to view the surface of the painting but never invite us into the space as did the softer, more inviting space of Impressionist painting.

In this work, Matisse painted from his own emotional response, rather than from an attempt to reproduce (more or less realistically), on canvas what he saw in front of him. His brilliant and harsh colors give the painting surface a force and vibrancy. He was composing a painting, not describing nature, a person, or a thing.

"Femme Au Chapeau" verges on the edge of abstraction but does not go over. reflecting Matisse's own definition of Fauvism as "The search for intensity in color, the substance being unimportant. Reaction against the diffusion of local tone in the light; the light is not suppressed, but expressed in a harmony of intensely colored surfaces.”

For Matisse, the Fauvist period was only one stage in his artistic life. He would later reject what he saw as some of the more excessive aspects of Fauvism, but it could be argued that it was Fauvism and his experiments in color that liberated him emotionally and enabled him to paint the calmer and more decorative works that were to come. We are the beneficiaries of his struggles. and for me, his works never become boring. I find something new every time I look.

Overview of Slow Art Day in Art News. "Slow Down, You look Too Fast."

(Note:  From Edward Burns: The painting was purchased at the 1905 Salon d’Automne by Leo and Gertrude Stein (LRB, 14 August). Stein gives an account of the public’s reaction to the painting in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and also confirms that Madame Matisse did not model for her husband in the colourful clothes of the painting but rather in black. The ‘larger, more elaborate landscape painting which Matisse had intended as the linchpin of his exhibit at the Salon’ was probably Le Bonheur de vivre (1905-06), which was also bought by the Steins (it is now in the Barnes Foundation). La Femme au chapeau remained in their collection until 1912 or 1913, when it passed to their brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Sarah Stein, who took it to America when they left France in the mid-1930s. Eventually it was sold to their friend Elise Haas, who bequeathed it to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.)

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